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The Tao that can be discussed is not really the Tao.
Things in the world are only temporary reflections of Tao.
The flow of Tao is all that really exists.
Our language and beliefs and categories
Are only fabrications which help us make sense of its flow.
In order to understand this, one has to first learn how to relax,
In order to experience this, one has to first learn how to unlearn.
The world is made of and by Tao,
And Tao is evidenced by the workings of the world.
Tao and the world may seem separate
But that is only because we are hardwired to see it that way.
To operate in greater harmony with the world,
We must begin to internalize this way and its perspective.
Once beauty is identified as precious,
Ugliness is seen everywhere.
Once the good is held up as an ideal,
The commonplace is considered bad.
Difficult and easy,
Long and short,
High and Low,
Sound and Silence,
Before and After—
Each of them are complementary parts of a bigger unity,
But our conditioned minds don’t perceive it that way.
We drive each aspect as far apart as possible from its complement,
And increasingly obsess over their division.
Therefore, the sage acts without struggle or coercion
And teaches by example and allusion rather than rote and rule.
Things come and he welcomes them.
Things go and he bids them adieu.
He helps with no expectation of gain,
Works with no expectation of reward,
Performs with no anticipation of results,
Completes projects but takes no credit.
Since he takes nothing from the World,
The World takes nothing from him.
And his impact upon the World long endures.
Exalting our superiors invites competition.
Treasuring things that are difficult to obtain encourages theft.
Flaunting objects of desire gives rise to jealousy.
So the sage rules by:
Relaxing the people’s hearts,
Satisfying their needs,
Lessening their wants,
And strengthening their character.
Once he has shown people how to live without craftiness and envy,
Cunning interlopers cannot take advantage of nor trick them.
Living without objective allows us to live in harmony with nature.
Tao is an empty vessel
Yet everything comes from it.
Though utterly fathomless,
It gives rise to everything we perceive
It smooths sharp edges,
It unties the knots,
It softens the glare,
And settles the dirt of daily life.
It seems to have been around forever.
No one knows where it came from.
This is because it preceded the world of forms.
Nature is unsentimental—
It treats the living no different than it treats debris.
Sages are the same: They evaluate everyone impartially.
Nature is like a bellows—
It is empty and yet everything springs from it.
The more pressure put on it, the more it creates.
Man is not like this—
The more he produces, the more exhausted he becomes.
To tap into the Tao, the sage instead turns inward.
There he finds its calm and creative source
At the very center of his being.
The fountain of life which never ceases to flow
Can be thought of as a mysterious sort of womb.
The entrance to this profound mother is the origin of the world.
Her presence stretches in all directions, across all time and space.
She seems to give birth without exerting the slightest effort.
Why is Nature eternal and enduring?
Because it does not have any ends.
Because it lacks any goals,
Nature can never fail to succeed.
The sage also refuses to contend or compete.
By placing himself in the back,
He soon finds himself out in front.
Because he doesn’t have any expectations,
He doesn’t suffer any disappointments.
Thus, it is only because he lacks any self-interest
That his interests are fulfilled.
It is best to be like water
Water benefits all things,
Yet it does not contend, nor struggle to do so.
Water naturally goes places shunned by most people,
Therefore water is very similar to Tao.
Because it dwells even in low places, it is of benefit to all—
Even the unpopular and rejected.
Be like water:
Dwell low, close to the earth,
Penetrate deeply, and reflect serenely upon your environment,
Benefit and nourish all the things around you,
Communicate clearly and faithfully,
When taking charge, be appropriate,
When serving others, be able,
Do not rush nor tarry.
There is a unique time, rhythm and speed for every action.
The sage does not pit himself against Nature.
Therefore he never finds his path obstructed.
Man is oriented toward excess,
But greed puts a strain on systems,
An oversharpened blade will be broken
An overflowing vault will be vanquished
An overvalued ego will be brought down.
Do what is necessary, take what you need,
And then get out of the way.
This is the efficient way in which Nature operates.
Can you embrace both the abstract and the concrete,
And see them as two sides of the same oneness?
This will help you maintain integrity
And avoid internal contradiction.
Meditating upon, and subtilizing your inner energy
Allows you to become as pure and receptive as a newborn.
Examining your perceptions of the world
Allows you to cleanse them of all dust and distortion.
Identifying with the people over whom you have influence
Prevents being distracted by your own self-interest.
As temptations avail themselves to you
Can you remain steadfast as a mother bird in her nest?
As you grow wise and knowledgeable about many things,
Can you retain the modesty of an amateur?
Both the Tao and the sage nurture the people
Without assuming any ownership of them.
They act without expecting results,
And lead without controlling.
Human beings call this virtue.
It is the very embodiment of Tao—
Tao manifesting itself via the human heart.
A wheel is fashioned from spokes,
Yet it is the emptiness at its hub which allows it to function.
A bowl is molded from clay,
Yet it is the hollow at its center which allows it to be used.
A house is structured from timber and stone
Yet it is the empty space within which affords it its value.
Therefore, although presence provides property,
Empty space affords utility.
Too much light blinds the eye,
Too much sound deafens the ear,
Too much spice blunts the taste,
Too much excitement maddens the mind,
Too much desire compromises the character.
That is why the sage puts his inner needs first,
By moderating the external distractions of the senses.
The sages say:
“Both praise and blame induce anxiety, for honors are fleeting and fickle.”
We indulge our anxieties because they safeguard the self.
It seems that consternation may be a condition of consciousness.
For those who regard themselves as a part of a much greater whole,
Praise and blame no longer elicit unease.
Undivided from environment,
They care about the world as much as they care about themselves.
This is why it is only those who see themselves as ordinary
Who may be fit to influence the world,
And only those immune to honor
Who may actually deserve it.
You can look, but it cannot be seen.
You can listen, but it cannot be heard.
You can grasp, but it cannot be touched.
When something is incapable of being sensed or categorized or measured in this way,
It is because it is not a thing—
It is an undifferentiated field of potential.
It is neither light nor dark, high nor low, up nor down.
Rather, its process prefigures the very division of opposites,
And thus it is impossible to define.
It emerges only to vanish again and again.
We might consider it a formula for the unformed,
An illustration of the undefined,
An outline of ambiguity.
Don’t try to examine it directly,
You won’t make heads nor tails of it.
Rather, practice abiding the path of Tao in the here-and-now.
In doing this, you will share in its momentum,
An unimpeded unfolding
Which started back at the beginning of all things.
The ancient sages were masters of making their way in the world.
Since we can scarcely comprehend the depths of their understanding,
All we can do is reflect on their outward attitude:
Careful, like a man crossing a frozen stream,
Vigilant, like someone surrounded on all sides by threat,
Courteous, like an honored guest,
Yielding, like thawing ice,
Unassuming, like uncarved wood,
Receptive, like an empty valley,
Yet incomprehensible as a turbid pool.
Muddy water once settled becomes clear,
And settled water once again becomes agitated.
He who can remain constant and avoid the vicissitudes of excess,
Avoids becoming buffeted by changing currents,
And naturally cleaves to the path which cuts right through.
Maintain a perfect stillness,
And you will witness everything arising from this quietude.
Rising and falling,
Like your breath,
Everything without fail returns to the void.
When you are able to see that everything returns to the void,
You will have gained insight into the human condition.
Prior to attaining this insight,
You are under the constant risk of compulsive behavior,
And compulsive behavior can ruin your life.
When you attain this insight into the nature of things,
You will learn to embrace the entire world.
By embracing the entire world you will become profoundly unbiased.
By being profoundly unbiased you will become deeply selfless.
By being deeply selfless you will enter naturally into the stream of Tao.
And Tao takes care of its own.
The greatest rulers are barely known,
The next best are admired,
The next best are feared,
The next best are loathed.
The stronger the feelings, the weaker the trust,
And those who cannot trust, cannot be governed.
Thus, the best rulers take no credit for their achievements.
This makes the people feel that they have governed themselves.
When people abandon the Tao,
Doctrines of morality and rectitude take its place.
Once intellect and knowledge are esteemed,
Hypocrisy and pretense become routine.
As family relationships become strained,
We start to hear a lot about the importance of kinship.
And it is only when the whole political system is in trouble,
That ministers start preaching about patriotic loyalties.
To help humanity:
Abandon the doctrine of kindness,
And relinquish moral duty.
After rejecting these external injunctions,
A natural piousness and compassion will be allowed to flourish.
Moreover, if we:
Disregard academic knowledge,
And spurn ceremony,
We will be freed from anxiety over status,
And distress over details.
Furthermore, when we:
Root out artifice,
And banish profiteers,
Hustlers and thieves will be obliged to find their targets elsewhere.
However, these are just outward policies.
Within ourselves we must also come to:
Value the unadorned,
And curtail our craving.
Abandon learning—it brings only sorrow.
What is good and what is bad?
Must I fear what others fear?
The limit to our ignorance is endless.
Yet there is endless joy to be had—
The world is like a great spring feast.
I take in the views from high above it all,
Calm, alone, and expressionless as an unborn infant,
With nothing to do, and nowhere to go.
The people indulge in an abundance of wealth,
While I appear to have nothing.
The people are sharp and clear-minded,
Whereas I seem confused.
The people are confident and assertive,
But I look dull and withdrawn.
The people are gainfully employed,
Yet I remain stubbornly idle.
My mind is foolish, indeed rather vulgar.
Aimless as the restless winds,
I seem to have no direction at all.
I suppose I am rather different from everyone else.
Yet I am content. Everything I need is right here.
Human virtue is an expression of Tao
Yet its path is elusive and indistinct.
Forms and patterns may be latent within Tao,
But they are obscured to us, mysterious.
The essence of life springs from it,
Yet we can’t observe the fountainhead.
We only know of Tao from its predicates:
A ceaseless flow of creativity from ancient times until now.
This descent of Tao endures—
Its chain of manifestations have persevered through history.
We too are a product of that lineage,
So how we can follow Tao, and manifest its virtue?
By searching within ourselves,
And locating the links.
Only that which is humbled can be improved.
Only that which is broken can be attended to.
Only that which is emptied can be filled up.
Only that which is worn out can be rejuvenated.
Only one who possesses little can ever hope to be satisfied—
This is why those who clutch at success, wealth and status
Come to feel as if deprived.
Therefore, in order that he can help husband the world,
The sage embraces a unity of opposites.
In order to attend to its totality,
He does not focus on himself.
By not claiming to be right,
He becomes righteous.
By not admiring himself,
He merits admiration.
By not being arrogant,
He emerges as a natural leader.
It is only because he does not fight with the world,
That the world embraces him with ease.
The old masters said, “He who surrenders, wins.”
This was not just a clever saying.
He who humbles himself,
Finds a fount of power within,
And a world of welcome without,
So he is able to overcome anything.
Nature doesn’t dwell on things,
Therefore its violence doesn’t perpetuate itself—
Its cyclones peter out,
Its rainstorms lash and then depart.
Even if we wanted to exacerbate Nature’s tumult, we could not.
Therefore one who comports himself in a natural way,
Will spontaneously adopt the quiet virtue of nature,
Just as one who opposes naturalness,
Will find himself ever buffeted by turmoil.
Man is an extension of nature,
Therefore he who lives in accordance with it
Helps to extend its patterns onto the world.
In so doing, he acts as an agent for Tao.
This works both ways:
One who behaves unnaturally
Acts as an impediment to Tao
And hinders its unfolding.
Stand on your tiptoes and you will fall over.
Overextend your stride and you will tire quickly.
Focus on yourself and you will never learn anything.
Sit stubbornly and you will never move forward.
Admire yourself and you will never be admired.
In this way, nature self-corrects itself,
And prevents the selfish from persevering.
From the point of view of the Tao,
Excessive and greedy actions are like tumors.
This is why people naturally detest them.
A follower of Tao rejects them as a matter of principle.
There is something completely nebulous
That predated the world.
Tranquil, formless and solitary,
It persists as it provides,
Like some vast cosmic mother.
I can’t compartmentalize it,
So I just refer to it as “Tao.”
However, if I were forced to try to describe it,
I might call it great, all-pervasive, and far-reaching,
Something which comes from the origin of all things,
And returns to the origin of all things.
It is the force of greatness which makes all great things greater:
Nature, the universe, earth, and leaders of men.
People often forget that there are entities greater than their leaders:
While leaders follow the laws of humanity,
Humanity follows the laws of the world,
The world follows the laws of nature,
Nature follows the laws of Tao,
And Tao follows itself.
Everything follows from this.
The extremes of work and whimsy
Entail each other,
Like those of tranquility and tension.
The sage walks all day,
But never abandons his cargo.
Even though there are magnificent sights to distract him,
He remains calm and single-minded.
It is only when his duty is done
That he can go back to being unconcerned and aloof.
Similarly, a great ruler cannot indulge in frivolity,
Else he will lose his focus.
And he cannot allow himself to abandon his self-control,
Else he will lose all of his control.
A good traveler leaves no trace,
A good speaker leaves no doubt,
A good accountant needs no paper,
A well-locked door needs no barricade,
A well-tied knot needs no reinforcement.
The sage tirelessly supports those in need
Without stepping on the toes of others.
He helps all,
Without rejecting anyone, nor anything.
It takes a special kind of wisdom to act in this way.
For the truly good person, his goodness will never be exhausted.
By teaching those who are not yet in possession of beneficence,
And by sharing what he has with them,
He increases his own store of goodness.
However, a student who does not trust his teacher,
And who does not cherish his lesson,
Even if he is wise,
Will find himself no better off.
One cannot acquire anything
When one maintains no open place to put it.
But maintain receptivity.
By being receptive, one lies underneath the world,
And protects the power of its undifferentiated potential.
To understand the brilliant,
One must also be steeped in the obscure.
By acting as a facilitator for the world,
One gains access to the world’s resources,
Along with its undifferentiated potential.
The sage understands glory and honor,
But clings to humility.
By putting himself beneath the world,
He helps sustain the world,
And safeguards its undifferentiated potential.
Sages know how to turn Tao into a practical means of power,
So great societies are careful to make efficient use of them.
Those who want to rule the world by force,
Will surely fail.
The natural way of things should not be tampered with.
For when one tries to divert it, one destroys it,
And when one tries to grip it, one fumbles it.
Sometimes things move forward,
Sometimes they dally behind,
Sometimes they heat up,
Sometimes they grow cold,
Sometimes they strengthen,
Sometimes they weaken,
Sometimes they overcome,
Sometimes they succumb.
Therefore the sage is skeptical of extremes,
And opposed to extravagant ideals.
When arrogance is avoided,
Achievements come naturally, easily, and each in their own time.
In knowing and teaching the ways of Tao,
The sage eschews the use of force,
For he knows it will only incur retaliation.
Where armies encamp, only thorny bushes will grow.
Great wars are followed by famine.
Thus, when fighting cannot be avoided,
The sage does only what is necessary,
And halts immediately thereafter.
He does not seek power for its own sake,
He achieves but is not arrogant,
He is resolute but not proud,
He fights only with reluctance,
He overcomes without dominating his opponent.
Though force may bring about a quicker triumph,
It will also sow the seeds of disaster.
Force runs contrary to Tao,
And so culminates in catastrophe.
Military instruments portend peril.
This is why they are naturally feared.
Because they are tools of aggression,
The sage holds no affinity for them.
In ordinary affairs, a wise ruler gives precedence to inclusion.
It is only in wartime that he elects the path of exclusion.
Thus military instruments do not further the development of wholesomeness.
Rather, they are a necessary but unfortunate regression in the grand scheme of things.
The wise ruler employs his militia only as a last resort
And is never enthusiastic about it.
For to delight in war is to delight in death,
And he who delights in death,
Will himself become subsumed by it.
Thus when forced into battle,
One should bitterly mourn the massacre of one’s adversaries,
And commemorate victory not with a parade,
But with a wake.
Tao is eternal and absolute,
Yet in its nameless, potential, and undifferentiated state,
It exerts little influence upon the world.
No one in the world can harness it wholly.
If only the rulers of the world could master it,
Then everything would naturally fall into place,
All our problems would be solved,
The people would be perfectly content,
And they would no longer need to be governed to get along.
Civilization gives rise to institutions,
And the habit of categorizing things,
Yet we need to recognize the limits of their efficacy:
To mark boundaries is to impose barriers upon the world.
Why is this important?
Because the way Tao manifests in the world
Is analogous to streams joining together into a great river
And those rivers uniting into an all-encompassing ocean.
It takes wit to understand other people,
But it takes humility to understand oneself.
It takes power to conquer other people,
But it takes resilience to conquer oneself.
Wealth arises not from riches,
But from lack of want.
Thus he who categorically accepts his lot in life,
Is wealthy beyond measure,
And his impact upon the world, immense.
Tao flows everywhere and in all directions.
Everything in the universe relies upon it,
Yet it doesn’t expect anything in return.
It works diligently,
Yet seeks no merit.
It is all-powerful,
Yet seeks no control.
It is eternal,
Yet seeks no sustenance.
Thus it can be found amongst even the most insignificant.
It provides the ground for all things,
Yet requires no tithe.
Thus it can be placed among the greatest of the great.
In the same way,
The sage does not seek greatness.
This is how he finds it.
To one who can grasp the idea of Tao,
The entire world makes itself available,
So no harm can come to him—
Only joy, abundance and contentment.
Though music and sweets may tantalize the typical passerby,
Tao is as transparent and tasteless as water,
And thus it is often ignored.
If you look for Tao you will not see it,
If you listen for Tao you will not hear it,
But if you learn to make use of it,
It will be of use to you always.
That which is stretched too far will snap back.
That which uses too much power will become enfeebled.
That which is built up too high will topple over.
That which is overloaded with riches will soon be raided.
The weak will eventually overcome the strong—
This principle reveals the value of humility.
Just as fish who rise up to the surface are consumed,
Strength, when vaunted, is vanquished.
Tao doesn’t do anything,
And yet somehow it gets everything done.
If the mighty could also eschew objectives,
Everything in the world would naturally thrive.
When objectives assert themselves,
They can be subdued with simplicity.
Subdued by simplicity, tranquility is attained,
And the world once again thrives as it may.
Those of the highest character do not think about virtue,
Which is why they are the most virtuous,
While those of lower character strive to attain virtue,
Which is why they rarely do.
The truly virtuous
Act without objective,
And thus have no need to be recognized.
Beneath them, the benevolent are moved by a code of valor,
And so must strive after honor and accolade.
Yet at least they do not impose morality upon others—
Beneath them, the righteous perceive themselves as moral guardians,
And so must strive to control and command.
Yet at least they are concerned with the living—
Beneath them, the holy are only interested in tradition and ritual.
Since no one really cares about any of that,
They must strive to establish their doctrines by force.
When Tao is lost, we hear about virtue,
When virtue is lost, we hear about benevolence,
When benevolence is lost, we hear about morality,
And when morality is lost, we hear about history.
It follows that:
Of all the methods to find the way in the world,
Hewing to traditional doctrine is by far the shabbiest,
And a portent of great troubles to come.
Any presumed wisdom is like a petal
On an enormous and unfolding tree of knowledge.
Mistaking the flower for the tree itself
Renders the system infertile,
Nurturing only ignorance and delusion.
This is why those of great character
Concern themselves with the pith instead of the peel,
The fruit instead of the flower,
The trunk instead of the twigs.
Electing sustenance, they shed the superficial.
In ancient times everything was unified by Tao.
Because of this:
The sky was clear,
The earth was settled,
The air was energized,
The rivers were abundant,
And rulers could govern virtuously.
But without this unity:
The sky collapses,
The earth sinks,
The air dissipates,
The rivers dry up,
And rulers are laid low.
Thus to achieve nobility,
One must recognize a dependence upon the humble.
To reach great heights,
Roots must be tended to assiduously.
To win enduring support,
Great leaders must openly exhibit their humanity.
After all, there is weakness in power, and power in weakness—
Rather being than shiny and precious as jewelry,
Be common and steadfast as stone.
When the best students learn about Tao,
They work hard to put it into practice.
When mediocre students learn about Tao,
They practice it only half-heartedly.
When the worst students learn about Tao,
They laugh out loud.
This is how we know it is truly Tao:
When the dull find it dumb.
Thus it is said that while starting on the path of Tao:
The way of illumination appears dim,
Moving forward seems like a retreat,
The easier path appears more difficult,
The highest virtue sounds hollow,
The purest innocence looks disgraced,
The wisest mind seems ignorant,
The most steadfast character appears deceitful,
The most evident truth seems spurious,
The ideal structure looks badly-shaped,
The perfect tool takes too long to implement,
The finest music is too unsettling to enjoy,
The most beautiful image betrays no evident form.
Tao is utterly obscure and unnamable.
This is how it safeguards its power,
And how it is able to invest itself so effectively in the world.
Tao gives rise to a unified field of being,
The unified field of being splits into the yin and the yang,
The interplay of yin and yang gives birth to creativity,
And creativity produces all the things we perceive in the world.
Elements in the world are vehicles for yin and yang,
Helping to harmoniously blend their vital energies.
Most people hate to be lonely and disrespected,
Yet great men can see the value in being an outsider.
They know that in certain conditions
Loss can be a gain, and gain can be a loss.
It’s been said many times before:
Those who visit violence upon the world
Will surely have violence visited upon them.
This is the most important thing in the world there is to understand.
The softest things in the world,
In time, naturally overcome the hardest.
The most formless things in the world,
In time, naturally overcome the most solid.
From these examples we can learn the value of not trying.
Of course, this can be very difficult to understand—
How it is that surrender can lead to success.
Status or self-regard, which is more significant?
Well-being or wealth, which is worth more?
Gain or loss, which incurs more pain?
The greater the attachment, the more acute the suffering.
The greater the hoard, the more damaging the loss.
A contented man is immune to disappointment.
Since he does not covet, he incurs no danger.
Incurring no danger, he lives long, and prospers.
The greatest accomplishment may appear ordinary,
But its greatness lies in its eternal utility.
The greatest abundance may appear unimpressive,
But its greatness lies in its inexhaustibility.
The straightest line may seem skewed,
The greatest intelligence may seem idiotic,
And the greatest communication may seem confounding.
Movement overcomes cold.
Stillness overcomes heat.
To help bring equilibrium to the world,
Just relax, take it easy,
And the world will flourish
Despite any of our efforts to understand it.
When Tao prevails,
Stallions are freed to fertilize the fields.
When Tao is ignored,
Warhorses are bred along the borderlands.
There is no curse more deep-rooted than discontentment,
And no affliction more self-stoking than greed,
For only when one learns how to cultivate contentment,
Can they ever hope to experience satisfaction.
In the development of knowledge, there is a daily augmenting,
But in the development of Tao, there is a daily diminishing.
One strives less and less,
Until all action unfolds without objective.
Although one appears to do very little at all,
Everything important is achieved.
To effectively husband the world,
Do not wrestle with it.
Obstruct its natural flow,
And you will find yourself pushed aside.
The sage has no fixed ideas about anything,
So he takes in a broad range of information—
Not only from the admired,
But also from the shunned,
And so doubles the value he receives.
He entertains not only the credible,
But the incredible as well,
And so multiplies his libraries of learning.
In husbanding the world,
The sage draws people together
Into one big glorious mess.
In this way, he keeps them from maturing,
Preventing their perceptions from growing old and brittle.
In the cycle of life, death is inevitable.
This can be dealt with in different ways—
Three men in ten are students of death,
Three men in ten are students of life,
And three men in ten are so preoccupied with survival,
That they only end up accelerating their decay.
Yet the one in ten who is truly adept at living long
Does not fear wild animals in the woods,
Nor soldiers on the battlefield.
Horns and claws do not rend his flesh,
And swords do not pierce his heart.
Why is this?
Because he is a student of both life and death equally.
Tao itself brings forth life,
While virtue, the practice of Tao, helps nurture it.
Things take shape according to their inner nature,
And environment helps perfect them.
This is why everything in the world esteems Tao,
And glorifies virtue.
Yet Tao’s esteem and virtue’s glory,
Are not bestowed upon them.
Rather, they arise naturally.
Tao provides life and nurtures it,
Rears and nourishes it,
Shelters and matures it,
Sustains and protects it.
Though Tao gives life,
It does so without any hint of possessiveness.
It assists without any expectation of return.
It mentors without imposing its authority.
These are the greatest virtues imaginable.
The progenitor of the world
May be thought of as its mother.
You must first learn to fathom the mother
In order to understand the children.
Then, once the children are made sense of,
You can return to the maternal bosom
And she will protect you from all the peril in the world.
Temper your senses,
And you will enjoy a life of peace.
Keep your mouth always open,
Multiply your activities,
And you will invite all the trouble in the world.
Cherishing the insignificant
Reveals great profundity.
Aligning with the fragile
Confers great strength.
Use Tao to illuminate things instead of doctrine.
This will help safeguard you from misfortune.
It is a practice which inculcates insight.
If we had the tiniest bit of sense,
We would always stay on the thoroughfare of Tao,
Avoiding the ill-fated off-ramp.
The high road is broad and smooth,
Yet for some odd reason,
People are prone to veer onto treacherous turnoffs.
Though mansions are immaculately appointed,
The surrounding fields lie fallow,
And the granaries stand empty.
Inside, they wear elegant clothes,
With fine jewels dangling upon them.
They eat and drink excessively,
Enjoying riches too innumerable to apprehend.
We normally refer to this as grand larceny!
Some imagine this to be a noble path.
But it too is a grave deviation from the Tao.
That which is given a good foundation in Tao,
Cannot be knocked down.
That which deeply embraces Tao,
Cannot be torn from it.
Tao’s adepts are heirs to its homestead,
Just as children are kin to their clan.
When one cultivates Tao in his person,
His character will become genuine.
When one cultivates Tao in his family,
Its strength will become multiplied.
When one cultivates Tao in his community,
Its virtue will become long-lasting.
When one cultivates Tao in is country,
Its goodness will prosper.
When one cultivates Tao everywhere,
Its benefits will spread broadly across the world.
To get started,
Compare your person against other persons,
Compare your family against other families,
Compare your community against other communities,
Compare your country against other countries,
And compare your world with everything that has come before it.
How can one confirm that this method works?
Only through personal observation.
Don’t take my word for it.
One who is rich in character
Can be said to be like a newborn baby.
Snakes and scorpions will not sting him,
Wild animals will not attack him,
And birds of prey will not swoop down upon him.
His bones are flexible,
And his muscles soft—
Yet his grip is so strong!
He is unaware of coitus,
And yet his penis stands erect—
His vitality is at full potential indeed!
He can scream all day and not become hoarse—
In what great shape his body must be!
To know this freshness is to be in accord with the eternal,
And to be in accord with the eternal is to be enlightened.
Though vitality inevitably wanes,
Artificial attempts to increase it are ill-fated.
An overuse of vital energy is bound to backfire:
Those who struggle against their decay
Grow old before their time.
This is a departure from the way of nature—
And whatever departs from this way
Meets an untimely end.
Those who are wise do not speak about wisdom,
And those who speak about wisdom are not wise.
Shut your mouth,
Close your eyes,
Blunt your edges,
Untie your knots,
Unwind your intellect,
And identify yourself with the dust.
This is how you achieve unity with the world.
Once unity with the world is achieved,
You will no longer be able to be attached, nor aloof,
Nor benefited, nor harmed,
Nor ennobled, nor disgraced.
This is the highest state of human development.
Great governors make forthright plans,
Great generals make deceptive plans,
But great sages refuse to make any plans at all—
This is how they rule the world.
How is this a strategy for leadership?
Because the more plans and prohibitions we make,
The more the people grow impoverished,
And the more the powerful profit from war and weaponry,
The more the nation grows chaotic.
It seems that the more that crafty schemes
Are floated among the populace,
The more things fall apart.
By enacting more laws,
We create more criminals.
Hence the sage:
Doesn’t push anyone to improve,
And the people naturally transform themselves.
He presides peacefully,
And the people get along with each other.
He doesn’t meddle in their business,
And the people prosper.
He expects nothing from them,
And the people learn to live well.
When the government is unobtrusive,
The people remain sincere.
But when the government interferes with their lives,
The people contend with each other for advantage.
Good fortune follows from bad fortune,
Just as bad fortune follows from good—
No one knows what lies just around the corner.
Thus there is no right way,
Because what is right soon deviates into what is wrong,
And excellence is soon beset by the ominous.
For a long time now
The people have struggled to figure out how to live.
So the sage cultivates a sharp wit,
But does not use it to cut the dullards down.
He speaks honestly, but does not insult.
He deals directly, but does not bully.
Though his wisdom illuminates,
It does not blind or dazzle.
In governing the people,
And attending to the environment,
Nothing is greater than humility.
Only by practicing humility,
Can one rapidly return to the natural state.
The more rapidly you return to the natural state,
The greater your crop of character.
The greater your crop of character,
The more challenges can be overcome.
The more challenges you overcome,
The more limitless your life.
The more limitless your life,
The greater your capacity to cultivate.
And the greater your capacity to cultivate,
The more profound your influence can be.
This is what results when one attends ardently to roots—
A flourishing of enduring vitality and vision.
A sage governs a large group in the same way
That he would cook a delicate fish:
That is to say, he meddles as little as possible.
When the world is governed in accordance with Tao,
Spiritual influences no longer find any purchase.
It’s not that spiritualism loses any power,
Only that it no longer has any effect on the people.
Thus, just as sages do,
The unseen ends up leaving people alone.
When the unseen and the sages leave people alone,
Order is welcomed into the world.
A great society should be like a lowland delta
Toward which all things flow downstream,
Commingling their potency.
It is by remaining receptive
That the submissive overcomes the dominating.
By attending to the base of things,
The receptive restores balance in the world.
It is in this way that
By submitting to the weak,
The strong can win their loyalty,
And by submitting to the strong
The weak can win their protection.
Thus, there is enormous power in placing oneself below.
If a relationship is mutually beneficial,
What does it matter who wears the crown?
Tao is the source and sanctuary of all things.
It is both the storehouse of the sage,
And the safeguard of the sinner.
Beautiful speech wins adoration,
And honorable acts win respect,
But the disgraced are not without potential—
Why should we cast them aside?
When great rulers are coronated,
They are honored with horses and jewelry.
Yet these are mere trinkets,
When compared with the treasures of the Tao.
Why has Tao been regarded as the greatest gift of all?
Because to those who abide in Tao,
The greatest grace is revealed,
And to those who confide in Tao,
The basest disgrace is repealed.
Act without force,
Work without will,
Taste without prejudice,
Regard the tiny as great,
And a dearth as an abundance.
Reward an enemy with kindness,
Deal with the doable before it grows difficult,
And attend to the minor before it becomes major.
The hardest problems were once thought of as simple,
And the biggest issues started off small.
One who takes responsibilities too lightly
Will never be trusted,
And one who regards everything as trivial
Will soon find it all insurmountable.
It is precisely because the sage doesn’t think of himself highly
That he achieves greatness:
Because he regards everything as important,
He is never caught off guard,
And nothing is ever difficult for him to do.
That which is unmoving is easily grasped.
That which has not yet occurred is easily prevented.
That which is infirm is easily overcome.
That which is delicate is easily dismantled.
Deal with a problem before it develops.
Take command of a situation before it spins out of control.
A trunk broader than your embrace
Grows from the slenderest stem.
A tower nine stories high
Ascends from a mere pile of dust.
A journey three hundred miles long
Is launched with a single step.
Struggle with something and you’ll break it.
Grasp too tightly and it will flow through your fingers.
Because sages don’t strive,
They don’t destroy anything.
And because they don’t hold on too hard,
They don’t lose anything either.
Ordinary people often ruin things
Just before they’re about to complete them.
Remain as unattached at the end as you are at the beginning,
And your expectations won’t get the better of you.
Therefore the sage seeks freedom from desire,
And does not prize things that are hard to come by.
In learning how to unlearn his conditionings,
He uncovers treasures that others pass over.
In offering these gifts without pressure,
He helps the world return to its true nature.
In ancient times,
The wise did not try to make people wise.
Instead they employed their wisdom
To sustain the simplicity of the people.
The reason they governed this way
Is because a group cannot be governed
When everyone in it thinks they’re wiser than everyone else.
Complicating a culture can destroy a society,
While simplifying its notions can help it stick together.
He who understands when to use each of these two methods
Understands how to bind elements in a group.
And he who understands how to bind elements in a group
Wields the greatest power in the world—
It is a creative power so far-reaching
That it leads back to the very origin of things.
What makes the rivers so noble and respected
Is that they skillfully adopt the lower position.
This is why the fertile valleys all flourish around them.
In the same way, he who wants to rule the people,
Must act with the greatest humility.
He who intends to be the face of the populace,
Must be utterly self-effacing.
To lead, he must place his ego behind.
In this way,
Though the sage actually sits above them,
The people do not feel his weight.
Though he stands out in front,
He does not block the way.
The world never tires of exalting him—
It is because his needs do not contend with theirs
That they never find any reason to contend with him.
Though everyone knows that Tao is great,
It appears utterly confounding.
Of course, it is only because it is confounding
That it can remain so great—
If its meaning could be easily picked apart,
It would have long ago lost its value!
Here are three great virtues for mankind to treasure:
The first is compassion,
The second is moderation,
The third is humility.
Compassion gives rise to courage,
Moderation gives rise to prosperity,
And humility gives rise to cooperation.
One can be courageous without compassion,
Prosperous without moderation,
And cooperative without humility.
But this goes against the way of Tao,
And so will usher in a great decay.
Above all, compassion can accomplish anything:
From winning a war,
To protecting a populace.
Truly, everything that endures in nature
Is predicated upon, and preserved by compassion.
The best warriors are not warlike.
The best pugilists are not pugnacious.
The best contenders are not contentious.
The best overlords do not lord themselves over.
This is called going with the flow of nature—
It is the most effective approach toward governance,
Because it is aligned in accordance with Tao.
There is a saying in the military:
Do not be the first to attack.
Rather, focus on holding your ground.
It is better to retreat a foot than to advance an inch.
This is called:
Advancing without movement,
Seizing without grasping,
Confronting without attacking,
And warding off without weaponry.
The greatest error is to disrespect an enemy—
Character is the greatest casualty of conceit.
Thus, when two equal armies collide,
It is the one which laments the need to do so
That is the more likely to triumph.
My words are very easy to understand,
And very easy to put into practice,
Yet there are few in the world who understand them,
Or who are able to put them into practice.
What I teach involves a process,
Just as a culture involves a curriculum.
It is only because people haven’t experienced it directly
That they don’t know what I’m talking about.
Those who do understand me are exceedingly rare,
And so I cherish them.
Though sages may dress shabbily,
They hold luminous treasures within their hearts.
As soon as the people no longer respect authority,
A far more insidious force will descend upon society.
Do not encroach on the territory of others,
And do not reduce their quality of life.
It is only when their leaders don’t disturb the people,
That they are not prone to disturbance.
It is for this reason that the sages know their strengths,
Yet don’t show them off.
Though they have great self-respect,
They do not stoke their self-regard.
By rooting out a sense of superiority,
They cultivate a strong relationship with their fellows.
Heroism has two faces:
Courage with caution may conserve life.
But feats of foolhardiness foster death.
Bravery can help, or it can hurt,
And it’s not always easy to anticipate the outcome.
Even the sages recognize the difficulty and danger in this.
Tao does not contend,
Yet it conquers.
It does not speak,
And yet it answers.
It does not summon,
And yet it receives.
Though it slacks, it succeeds.
Its web is porous,
And yet nothing falls from its embrace.
If people are no longer afraid to die,
Then death will be no deterrent.
They only commit capital crimes
When life becomes worse than death.
Nature is the great executioner
And death has long been its domain.
Assuming the role of the reaper
Ignores the double side of the blade.
Just like getting between a lumberjack and his lumber,
He who puts himself on the pathway
Is inclined to be cut down.
The people are only poor,
Because they’ve been pillaged by the powerful.
The meek are only a mess,
Because they’ve been meddled with by their masters.
The ordinary only obsess about an afterlife,
Because their lives have been impaired by the powerful.
Thus, those who expect too much from the world
Are the enemies of life,
While those who leave the world alone,
Are its allies and associates.
At birth, man is supple and soft,
At death, he is stiff and brittle.
When full of life, grasses and trees are flexible and frail,
But approaching death they are withered and dry.
Thus, the hard and stubborn is the disciple of death,
While the soft and yielding is the disciple of life.
In this way,
A campaign that cannot accommodate will collapse,
Just as a tree that cannot bend will break.
The mighty, in standing firm, will be laid low,
While the tender, in enduring, will emerge ascendant.
Tao is like an archer’s bow:
As it performs, the high is pulled down,
And the low is raised up.
The way of Tao is to maintain equilibrium:
It saps from surplus,
And replenishes the scarce.
The way of mankind is very different from this:
It takes away from those who have too little,
And gives yet more to those who already have too much.
In understanding and respecting the way of Tao,
The sage is able to help set things right.
He invests but does not expect any return,
Completes but does not take any credit.
In this way he can act as an instrument without ends.
Nothing in the world is as soft and accommodating as water,
And yet for overcoming the hard and inflexible,
There is nothing more effective.
Everyone knows that the liquid undermines the adamant,
That the yielding wears away at the unyielding,
Yet few of us are able to put this principle into play.
Therefore the sage says:
Only he who can embrace a society’s shame
Is qualified to rule over the entire country.
And only he who can bear its burden
Deserves to be carried on its shoulders.
These ideas may seem paradoxical at first glance,
But Tao is often like that.
After making peace with an adversary
There is usually some lingering enmity.
What can be done about this?
To expedite the accord,
The sage will honor his end of the agreement,
But not pressure the other side.
Whereas the sage focuses upon making amends,
The ignorant are concerned with assigning blame.
Tao itself is objective,
So it rewards those who see the bigger picture,
And penalizes those who pursue only personal interest.
The ideal society would be small, with a modest population,
And enough resource to amass an army,
Yet no recourse to deploy it.
They would value their lives so much
That they would see no reason to venture from home.
They would maintain vessels,
But have little occasion to ride them.
They would store weapons,
But have little occasion to exhibit them.
They would return to the old ways of doing things:
Enjoying their food,
Taking pride in their appearance,
Feeling secure in their homes,
And venerating the simple life.
Neighboring villages would stand in plain view,
Yet the people would happily pass their whole lives
Without ever having bothered to go visit.
Sincere language may not be beautiful,
But beautiful language is rarely sincere.
The righteous do not have much to say,
But those who talk a lot are rarely righteous.
The deep may not be distinguished,
But the distinguished rarely have depth.
The holy man does not hoard—
The more he gives,
The more he receives.
The more he helps,
The more he succeeds.
The way of Tao is to benefit without hurting.
Thus the sage does not struggle to do good in the world,
Rather, he elects to do so with the greatest of ease.